The FCC is coming under increased pressure to bring back Title II network neutrality rules amid a COVID-19 pandemic that has illustrated the critical need for reliable broadband connectivity, particularly for low-income households.
A group of network neutrality advocates – Common Cause, the Benton Institute for Broadband & Society, 1 United Church of Christ, OC Inc., National Hispanic Media Coalition, New America's Open Technology Institute and Free Press – stated their case in a petition filed Monday, February 8.
They argue that the FCC's remand order of network neutrality rules originally forged during the Obama administration "weakened the Lifeline program's ability to provide low-income households with affordable broadband options at a time when the COVID-19 pandemic has made the need for connectivity greater than ever … This is a time to strengthen Lifeline's legal authority, not weaken it."
They also held that the vaccine rollout for COVID-19 is exposing a "broadband affordability gap for low-income households," as many state and local governments are relying heavily on online tools to register people for vaccination appointments. Households that cannot afford connectivity "are being left behind in the process to sign up for vaccination," they claimed.
The FCC, they added, should "vacate the Remand Order and open a proceeding to reinstate broadband as a Title II service – the Commission's strongest legal authority for Lifeline support of broadband."
The petition echoes a Petition for Reconsideration filed last week by INCOMPAS asking the FCC to "get open Internet rules back on the books."
Even as these groups urge an FCC under newly elected President Biden to reinstate the rules, some cable operators and other ISPs have made moves to expand their broadband commitments to low-income households.
Some recent examples include Comcast, which increased the speeds of its Internet Essentials program for low-income households and accelerated the deployment of Wi-Fi-powered "Lift Zones" for students. Verizon, meanwhile, has broadened the availability of Fios Forward, a low-cost broadband service for qualified households.
— Jeff Baumgartner, Senior Editor, Light Reading, special to Broadband World News